A masterful storyteller, Gregg Sherrill ’75 says history is his “first love.” He effortlessly recalls pivotal moments in the business world and the experiences that have led him to his current position as chairman and CEO of Tenneco. In a recent visit to Mays Business School, Sherrill recounted the stories of his leadership journey to groups of undergraduate and MBA students.

Sherrill grew up in a ranching family from West Columbia, Texas. His Aggie roots run deep, starting with a grandfather who graduated from Texas A&M University in 1919. His love for the school has never diminished, and his time as a mechanical engineering major was “some of the best years of his life.”

Tenneco CEO Gregg Sherrill ’75 stressed the importance of continuous learning to MBA students. “Know what you know and more importantly, know what you don’t know.” (view more photos)

Sherrill’s business background is packed with another one of his loves: the automotive industry. He worked with Ford for 22 years, starting in the engineering department and moving to manufacturing later in his career. “I remember when I decided to leave the “elite’ group of engineers and take the manufacturing job— people told me I was destroying my career,” Sherrill recalls with a laugh. He claims that mastering the mass complexity of automotive manufacturing paved the way for his current position at Tenneco.

While at Ford, Sherrill earned his MBA from Indiana University—a feat he describes as “purely a personal goal.” He left Ford in 1998, at the peak of their success, for Johnson Controls, another decision his colleagues questioned him about. But Sherrill says he knew what he was doing. “In every career move, I made sure I wasn’t leaving something, I was headed towards something.”

Joining Tenneco as CEO in 2007, Sherrill says he’s lucky to work for a company that’s “positioned for growth.” Tenneco is an automotive supplier with 22,000 employees working in 82 facilities around the world. When asked how the company managed to survive through the “Great Recession of 2008-2009,” Sherrill says Tenneco substantially cut costs and persevered without sacrificing investment in growth.

Sherrill lives in Lake Forest, Ill., but is out of the office at least half the time due to travelling. He visits China four times a year and encourages students to broaden their knowledge of different cultures. “You may not understand, but you can at least appreciate it,” he says of the diverse global workplace.

Sherrill also spoke on what it takes to climb the ladder of success. “There are three simple factors in every promotion,” he says. “There has to be an opening, you have to be qualified and you have to be competitive… But for heaven’s sake, be competitive with integrity.”

Besides competitiveness, the automotive maven emphasized that perseverance, calmness in the face of adversity and balance are important components in building yourself into an effective leader. Continuous learning is also key. “Know what you know and more importantly, know what you don’t know.”

People ask him all the time what exactly he does as CEO. “I inspire,” he says, then adds, “always be cognizant of your influence.”